Histamines are biochemicals produced by normal human immune cells and gut bacteria.
And they are fascinating. The first surprise? Histamines mainly function as neurotransmitters.
It’s a brain chemical, like serotonin or dopamine. Antihistamines are sometimes used to treat anxiety!
So, how come when we say histamines, most people think antihistamines, as in something to get rid of allergy symptoms? Histamines get connected to allergic response because it is stored and released by mast cells. Mast cells are specialized white blood cells, which are part of our immune system.
There are four types of histamines that we know of:
- H1 histamine is known for its role in hives, allergies, and the sleep/wake cycle. (If an H1-blocking antihistamine ever made you drowsy, that’s why!)
- H2 releases hydrochloric acid in the stomach (Pepsid is an H2-blocking antihistamine).
- H3 is more like a classic neurotransmitter, likely involved in OCD, sleep disorders, and ADHD.
- H4 is involved in hives and asthma.
Histamines that are released by mast cells get broken down, or degraded, in the nervous system and the gut. This breakdown involves certain bacteria and two specific enzymes.
Some people don’t break down histamines very well. This is called Histamine Intolerance, or HIT.
HIT is common. It happens when a person is unable to produce one or both necessary enzymes that break down histamines, or the enzymes are inhibited.
When histamines build up in mast cells, we might have asthma, migraines, fatigue, hives, or allergy-type symptoms. This is where anti-histamines come in. Benadryl or Claritin can block H1, but an herbal antihistamine, butterbur, works equally well. The butterbur herb was found in clinical trials to be just as effective as the medications Claritin, Zyrtec, and Allegra.
Like herbs, food also affects the degree with which our cells store or release histamines. The histamine-degrading enzymes need vitamins and mineral co-factors to work, therefore good nutrition can help solve histamine reactions.
Getting adequate vitamin C, B1, B2, B3, B12, and zinc could improve histamine-related symptoms.
However, many healthy, nutrient-dense foods carry a high histamine load, so beware!
If you adopted a Paleo diet or got hooked on fermented food and noticed some symptoms got worse, this could be why. Many natural foods like yogurt, nuts, shellfish, smoked and fermented foods, mature cheese, vinegar, tomatoes, and citrus are high in histamine.
Some red wines also have a high concentration of histamines. Worse still, alcohol causes the release of histamine. Do you say no to wine at holiday parties to ensure you don’t fall asleep?
People with HIT have a lower than normal tolerance for food that contains histamines, so if a single glass of red wine has ever made you flushed, anxious, or fatigued, it could be a clue.
This kind of reaction can be caused by a gene mutation—a single nucleotide polymorphism—often called a ‘snip’—for the enzyme diamine oxidase.
Now, don’t go rushing to self-diagnose.
Histamines are released during allergic responses, but people with allergies don’t necessarily have HIT, and vice versa. Knowing the true cause of your symptoms is crucial and will help you understand why you have symptoms that disappear or recur.
My suggestion? Play detective, not doctor.
Also, play defense: if you are sensitive, especially during allergy season, avoid a histamine double whammy by staying away from alcohol, especially red wine.
Diet changes can reduce histamine intake, and altering the balance of our gut bacteria can regulate histamine release. Adding gut-healing foods, while avoiding high-histamine ones, might help.
The exciting news is some probiotics degrade histamines. They can help to lower our histamine load. But be careful with probiotics. Just like in fermented food, some probiotic supplements may produce unhelpful kinds of histamines.
Research is underway to determine the effects of each strain. Some probiotics, like Saccharomyces Boulaardii and some soil-based organisms, don’t seem to produce or degrade histamine but are potentially helpful anyway.
Many kinds of Bifidobacterium degrade histamines.
Each strain is different, but some Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium infantis, and Bifidobacterium bifidum have been found beneficial. The strains we use at Flora are currently being studied to learn more.
Many strains of various Lactobacilli produce histamines and provoke HIT reactions. Yet some strains of Lactobacillus plantarum, rhamnosus, and salivarius are degraders. And, at least one Lactobacillus reuteri is a producer of a helpful kind of histamine. Studies happening now might offer more insight in 2018.
Another approach is to stabilize the mast cells, where the histamines are stored.
Quercetin, found in onions, can work as a stabilizer, but we absorb it badly. Holy basil herb seems to be an effective choice. Holy Basil also works as a mast cell stabilizer, and it also helps to manage our experience of stress.
As for other good natural option to explore, I would recommend milk thistle, green tea, and nettle. And of course, if you are wondering if you have HIT, be a good diet detective, and keep a food journal!
How about you? Do you have allergies, HIT, or mast cell dysfunction? Have you ever tried a natural approach to manage histamines? What worked, what didn’t? If you have HIT, what approach are you willing to try?
Let us know in the comments!
Find butterbur in Migranon II (CA)
Here are sources of the other nutrients mentioned:
Nettle juice (CA)